Let me tell you a story.
He was a good young pastor. It was his first church, and he wanted to use all he had learned in seminary to lead these people he had just met to follow God in extraordinary ways, ways that would make the church grow and be known in the community -all good goals, all good intentions. He worked hard on his sermons, he taught Bible studies with a men’s group early in the morning, and offered another Bible study in the evening. He visited in homes and hospitals, always taking his Bible with him and sharing scriptures. After five years of this kind of heavy schedule, preparing for Bible studies and sermons every week along with pastoral needs and administrative necessities, the pastor was almost burned out. He took some time off and during that time, sat down with a church directory, and began reflecting upon the names.
Oh, the Withers family, he thought, they joined and came for a few weeks, and then we never saw them again. Mr. and Mrs. Wilt Washy didn’t seem very committed even when I came. I guess they quit coming to church a good while back. Oh, golly, Sandy Sunny was teaching Sunday School, helping in the nursery, and running the women’s group. I don’t remember her coming to worship or Bible study, though. And now she’s not coming at all. Hmmm… Oh, and Paul Putter, I remember him. He struggled because most of his friends wanted to go golfing on Sunday mornings. I guess he gave in and joined them. But thank goodness for folks like the Newbys, the Evergreens, The Ask-me’s, and the Saintly’s! We seem to be growing despite those who fall away. Maybe I just need to take more regular time off, more study leave, and take care of myself so that I can continue to lead these good people who keep showing up here.
This was my feeble attempt to put the Parable of the Sower in more modern terms. It is hard to write a modern-day parable, especially one as good as the parables Jesus told. As you know Jesus’ parables are complex, with many twists and turns, and various interpretations. The dictionary definition of a parable tells us that it is a simple story told to illustrate a moral truth. The author of a very helpful little book called The Parables for Today says that “Parables are short narrative fictions that seek to make us evaluate our lives. While we think we are interpreting them,” she says, “they are actually interpreting us!” (McKenzie, p.1) While the Old Testament and rabbis used parables to “reinforce conventional wisdom,” McKenzie thinks that Jesus used parables “to subvert traditional wisdom and to point to a new, inbreaking reality, the kingdom of God. He places seemingly everyday stories next to this new reality, the reign or kingdom of God, and allows the connections and the disconnections between the two to spark in the hearer’s mind.” (McKenzie, p.9-10)
The Gospel of Matthew likes to alternate action stories with passages of teaching and instruction from Jesus. Chapter 13, of course, is a teaching section. But it marks a change in the method of teaching for this gospel. Jesus has mostly preached and lectured to this point. This is the gospel that contains the full Sermon on the Mount, after all, in chapters 5 to 7. But here, in today’s passage, we see that Jesus began to teach in a new way, with parables. Stories grab people’s attention better than a lecture, that’s true. And Jesus’ parables used situations and people common to his time and age, ones that his listeners would readily understand – a farmer, a man and his two sons, laborers, tenants, those asked to a wedding banquet.
But according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had another reason for changing his teaching method to parables. In the section between the ones we read in Chapter 13, the disciples went to Jesus in private and asked him why he spoke to the people in parables. He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” (This is a paraphrase of Isaiah 6:9-10, when he then quotes for them). Then Jesus says to the disciples, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
Jesus says, basically, that he teaches in parables because many of the people have become hard of heart. They are not open, or do not want to hear, his messages of grace. Those who are open to understanding will listen to Jesus’ stories, and relate them to his words of God’s kingdom in which the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, and the pure in heart will see God. They will remember that they are to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. They will know that they are supposed to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, that they should not judge lest they be also judged. They will remember Jesus’ teachings, and apply the lessons of his parable to their faith walks.
Jesus then goes on, in the second section that we read today, to explain the meaning of the Parable of the Sower. The parable, as are most of Jesus’ parables, is about the Kingdom of God, and how we receive, or do not receive the Kingdom. Alice McKenzie’s little book gives four concise and helpful statements to answer the question of Jesus’ parables, “What is the kingdom of God like?” She says:
- The kingdom of God is not under our control.
- The kingdom of God shows up where we least expect it.
- The kingdom of God disrupts business as usual.
- The kingdom of God is a reign of justice and forgivness. (p.3)
The Parable of the Sower shows us an exceedingly extravagant farmer. Most farmers, when sowing seed, are very careful and intentional to keep the seed in the ground that they have prepared. Seeds, after all, cost money, and it would not be prudent to waste any by throwing them onto the path, or into the rocks or unweeded ground. But this farmer threw the seed everywhere. Maybe God casts his invitation to the kingdom, his grace and mercy, everywhere as well. For God is exceedingly generous.
Seed thrown on the path has a harder time sprouting. Maybe there are stones on the path, or mulch, or unfertilized soil, like that hard red clay that we have here in piedmont North Carolina. Some seeds might be able to sprout through that, but it would be hard for them to get their roots deep. Birds might grab the seeds because they were not deep in the good earth. And they might not survive without some regular watering and care, as the parable tells us.
By comparison, there may be some people who come to church every once in a while, but never to Sunday School or other Bible studies. They don’t pray or read their Bibles at home. Their faith does not go very deep, and it does not have much chance to grow. It is so much easier for them to stay home on Sunday mornings, to read the paper and watch sports, or to join their friends or family for a late, leisurely brunch. Church doesn’t matter that much to them anyway. There are so many other more interesting things to do. They have no roots in the faith, so their faith simply does not grow.
Others attend fairly regularly, participate in other events of the church. But when mom gets cancer and dies within a few weeks, they get mad at God, and quit going to church. They won’t call their church friends or their pastor for help. They leave their faith behind as a useless thing, because they feel betrayed by God. And they leave behind also anything or anyone connected with church who might help them to work through those rough places, those hard times.
There are also those who will fall away when the pastor or church does something with which they disagree. They quit giving to the church, and they quit attending. They too do not take the opportunity to discuss the issues with the pastor. They close the door and walk away. Maybe they go to another church, but maybe not…It is hard to know.
See, we can relate the events of this parable, told so long ago to a very different, but maybe not so different audience, to the here and now. I have, of course, interpreted it from the point of view as one who works for a church. You may interpret the very same parable differently for your lives, and you may even disagree with some of my interpretation. But that’s okay with me, for at least we will both be engaging in Bible study and interpretation, and perhaps also in dialogue! And that is a good and healthy thing for all of us to do for our faith lives.
Since the Kingdom of God can show up when we least expect it, notice that the parable has a surprise ending. The farmer was not very prudent with the seed, in a way, throwing it anywhere and everywhere. Plenty of it died and was wasted. Yet the seed still produced an extravagant harvest. A ten-fold harvest would be good, because 7 ½ would be about average. But this seed produced 30, 60, and 100-fold what was sown! (McKenzie, p.44) Surely this was a miracle! And the people hearing the story in Jesus’ time would recognize this miraculous outpouring. This is the surprise of God’s presence that can come into our hearts and in our world. We surely do not know where all of the seed of God’s kingdom is thrown. We do know that God is generous. We continue to be faithful, worshiping together and studying the Word, sharing our bounty as well as our time and efforts.
What a good story this Parable of the Sower is to read this summer, as we care for our very own church garden! We can see the benefit of seeds planted earlier in the year, nurtured by many church members and staff, young and old and in between. And we can marvel at God’s harvest, with more sprouting that we ever imagined, simply because we remain faithful and do what is needed to care for the garden.
The same can be said of our faith lives, individually and as a congregation. We reap what we sow, certainly. But this parable reminds us that God can take a simple harvest and make it into something extraordinary. So let’s stick around and see what God has in mind for us, individually, for this church, even for this denomination to which we belong. Maybe we, like the gardener in the parable, will be very pleasantly surprised!
All praise be to God! Amen.
Long, Thomas G., Matthew (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1997)
McKenzie, Alice M., The Parables for Today (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY/London, 2007)